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The Disappeared Salvator Mundi’s endgame: Part I: Altered States and a Disappeared Book

Michael Daley writes: As the world reels from China’s latest plague, the fifteen-year Salvator Mundi Saga has slipped into never-never land. The famously disappeared picture has been likened to an opera by its instigators and is set to become a musical in 2022 in which “artistic liberties will be freely taken to make an enlightening and entertaining experience”. Amazon is offering T-Shirts that carry the Salvator Mundi not as it looked in 2017 when it disappeared but as it looked in 2011 when first presented as a Leonardo at the National Gallery (see below, Fig. 3). The restorer’s own paintbrushes (which had been used to produce three distinctly different states or appearances) were auctioned on eBay with a $1,000 reserve. No bid was received. Back in the real world, before considering the rise and demise of a perpetually morphing disappeared picture’s attribution upgrade that netted $80 million, $127 million and $450 million in two restoration guises over four years on a $1,000 purchase that was overstated tenfold by its owners, we note three further bizarre developments, including a disappeared book of technical analysis and a disappeared Louvre catalogue.

1 – THE LOUVRE’S DISAPPEARED BOOK OF TECHNICAL DATA FOR A DISAPPEARED PAINTING

Above, Fig. 1: Left, a disappeared book; right, a disappeared ascription.

On 30 March, the Art Newspaper disclosed that last year the Louvre vaporised a 45-page book of technical examinations made in 2018 on the disappeared Salvator Mundi painting by C2RMF (Centre for Research and Restorations of the Museums of France). The Editions Hazan book, Léonard de Vinci: Le Salvator Mundi (Fig. 1, above, left), had been produced for the October 2019 opening of Léonard de Vinci, the Louvre’s major exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, but it was withdrawn shortly before the opening even though the authors reportedly considered their examinations “to have demonstrated that the work was executed by Leonardo”. (The claim, of course, is implausible: technical examinations can sometimes disprove an attribution but can never establish artistic authorship.)

A Louvre spokesman said the book, written by the Louvre curator Vincent Delieuvin and C2RMF’s Myriam Eveno and Elisabeth Ravaud, had been “a project in case the Louvre got the chance to exhibit the painting” and that because this had not happened “it is not going to be published” – which seems tantamount to saying “If we can borrow it, it’s a technically-supported Leonardo; if we cannot, it’s not”. A copy of the disappeared book has been seen by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who had restored the picture between 2005 and 2017. Modestini feels the conclusions confirm her own, earlier, judgements, even though they “do not reveal anything I did not already know about the materials and techniques…”

2 – THE LOUVRE’S DISAPPEARED CATALOGUE WITH A NON-APPEARING, NOW DISAPPEARED PAINTING

Second, to the embarrassment of a disappeared book of technical examinations, we disclose another disappeared Louvre publication: the catalogue for the museum’s 2019-20 Léonard de Vinci exhibition was also junked and replaced shortly before the opening. The two editions of the catalogue were identical except for one detail. In the first, the disappeared painting was splashed on the front cover as by Leonardo – “Front cover: Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (detail of cat. 157), Ministry of Culture, Saudi Arabia Kingdom”. (See Fig. 1, above, right.) The author of that endorsing entry was Vincent Delieuvin, who co-curated the exhibition with Louis Frank. Delieuvin’s public commitment to the Leonardo attribution was made in the catalogue of a small 2016 Leonardo exhibition at the Italian Embassy titled: Léonard en France. Le maître et ses élèves 500 ans après la traversée des Alpes, 1516-2016 (Leonardo in France. The master and his pupils 500 years after the crossing of the Alps, 1516-2016). There, Delieuvin ventured of the now-disappeared picture “…Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi whose autograph version seems to have reappeared very recently, unfortunately in very bad condition. The circumstances of the creation of this work are unfortunately not known.”

In the second printed catalogue, Delieuvin – with no explanation for the volte-face – correctly describes the Salvator Mundi as the Leonardo studio work that entered the Cook Collection in 1900 (on no provenance and that was later sold for £45) – namely: “Salvator Mundi, version Cook, vers 1505-1515″. A second Leonardo studio version, the de Ganay Salvator Mundi, was included in the Louvre exhibition as catalogue no. 158: “Salvator Mundi, version Ganay”. The choice of substitute may have been pointed: the Ganay picture had flopped when proposed in 1978 and 1982 as the supposedly lost autograph Leonardo prototype Salvator Mundi painting of which no record exists. Such notwithstanding, provenance claims made on behalf of that candidate were adopted and merged with those made on behalf of the Cook version. Because of the non-appearance of the disappeared Cook version, originally no. 157 in the catalogue, there is now a gap in the published catalogue between cat. 156 and cat. 158. That numerical lacuna testifies to the fateful loss of institutional support for the second would-be autograph Leonardo Salvator Mundi in forty years. (See Fig. 1, above, right.)

Above, Fig. 2: Left, the de Ganay Salvator Mundi which, in 1978 and 1982, had been proposed as a long-lost Leonardo prototype painting; right, the more heavily damaged and made-over ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi, which was presented as a long-lost Leonardo prototype painting at the National Gallery in November 2011.

3 – SOME DAY, MAYBE, NEVER…

After fetching $450 million in 2017 at Christie’s, New York, as Leonardo’s (supposedly) autograph, (supposedly) long-lost, (supposedly) iconic male equivalent of the Mona Lisa, the painting (really did) disappear without a trace, leaving the world bemused and the picture’s briefly “vindicated” advocates to play blame games. It was promised the painting would be launched as a Leonardo at the official opening of the United Arab Emirates spanking new Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum in 2018. That did not happen. It was said the painting would star as A Discovered Leonardo at the Paris Louvre’s grand 2019 Leonardo blockbuster. That did not happen either, just as we had predicted. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture has possession of the disappeared painting and plans to store it while deciding whether or not to build an exclusively Western art museum to house this once again officially-deemed Leonardo school Christian image (“Saudi Arabia’s Secret Plans to Unveil Its Hidden da Vinci-and Become an Art-World Heavyweight”, 6 June 2020).

A MUSEUM FOR A PICTURE NO MUSEUM WANTED

It might seem unlikely that the disappeared former Leonardo Salvator Mundi will reappear in a purpose-built museum of Western art in Arabia when it is now well known (thanks to Ben Lewis’s 2019 lid-lifting book The Last Leonardo) that the picture had been offered to, and rejected by: the Getty Museum; the Hermitage; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Vatican; the Dallas Museum; a German auction house; Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and even, at a knock-down $80 million, to the Qatari royal family.

WHY DID THE BIG WESTERN MUSUMS BACK OFF?

The National Gallery launched the Leonardo attribution in its 2011-2012 Leonardo blockbuster, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, after covertly helping to assemble its proclaimed “Unusually Uniform Scholarly Consensus”. The gallery made no attempt, however, to buy the Salvator Mundi. Similarly, and notwithstanding National Gallery claims of blanket endorsement by the Metropolitan Museum’s curators of pictures and drawings, the Met, too, did not buy what Christie’s dubbed “The Last Leonardo”. Despite publicly avowing support for the Leonardo ascription, the Met’s Chairman of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, has (so far as we know) written nothing in its support – in marked contrast to his decisive role in the museum’s 2004 purchase of the tiny Madonna and Child that Christie’s offered as the “The Last Duccio”. Where the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, shuffled financial mountains to acquire the Duccio at Christiansen’s behest, Thomas Campbell, de Montebello’s successor from 2009 to 2017, tweeted after the 2017 $450 million Salvator Mundi sale that he hoped the mystery buyer “understands conservation issues” and had “read the small print”. Many were sickened by Christie’s globally-hyped removal of a sixteenth century painting from an old masters’ sale context to offer it (buttressed by cross-linked and mutually assured sale guarantees) among trophy modernist “icons” – and all on a picture Christie’s had passed over when it was offered in 2005.

SALVATOR MUNDI IS A PAINTING OF THE MOST ICONIC FIGURE IN THE WORLD BY THE MOST IMPORTANT ARTIST OF ALL TIME” – LOÏC GOUZER

Above, Fig. 3: Left, Loïc Gouzer, Christie’s former co-chairman of Americas post-war and contemporary art, next to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled at a press preview; centre, the Salvator Mundi as when sold as a Leonardo at Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017; right, the Amazon T-Shirt sporting the Salvator Mundi as it appeared at the National Gallery in 2011 with many more folds visible in the drapery at Christ’s (true) left shoulder – see below, Figs. 8, 9 and 10.

Above, Fig. 4, top row: Left, a c. 1913 photograph of the Salvator Mundi when in the Cook Collection, England; right, the Salvator Mundi as when sold at Christie’s in November 2017. Bottom row: the same time-line changes with three intermediary states from 2005; 2005; and 2011-2012 (when exhibited as a Leonardo at the National Gallery).

THE INTENSIFYING CRISIS OF ART MARKET CONNOISSEURSHIP

The epically long Salvator Debacle has put the abiding old masters’ connoisseurship crisis centre stage. To restate the intractable root problem: supply is finite – the old masters aren’t working any-more; most big-name works are already in museums; and infinite new global money craves art that bestows cachet and respectability. In February 2018, Guillame Cerutti, Christie’s CEO, purred: “our major clients are looking for trophies. They want quality and rarity in any field. This painting had both aspects, it ticked all the boxes”. Such a global trophy-hungry market can only be grown with dramatically upgraded art trade “sleepers” or outright forgeries. Both stand on restorers’ transforming skills which, along with claimed technical discoveries, licence scholars’ elevation of formerly nondescript works to revered Lost Masterpiece status.

MUSEUMS BEWARE

For Big-Name buyers, risks are high and can trip the grandest museums. The Metropolitan Museum’s David was one of its most popular paintings… until it wasn’t a “David” anymore. In 2004 the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, spoke of the “Stoclet Duccio” Madonna and Child as “Filling a gap in our Renaissance collection that even the Metropolitan had scant hopes of ever closing, the addition of a Duccio will enable visitors for the first time to follow the entire trajectory of European painting from its beginnings to the present. Moreover, the Duccio Madonna and Child is a work of sublime beauty. This was a unique opportunity to not only to add a masterpiece to the Museum’s holdings but to give its collections a new dimension.”

The institutional gush was infectious: “The Stoclet Duccio – we can now proudly call it ‘the Metropolitan Duccio’ – is an astonishing achievement”, wrote the New York restorer/some-time dealer, Marco Grassi, who likened the picture’s emergence to a discovered Mozart quartet. The disappeared Salvator Mundi is now likened by its original owners/supporters to the discovery of a new planet: “Paintings by the master are as significant culturally as the planets are celestially”. (It must seem cruel to have discovered and lost a planet in six short years.) Circumspection would have been prudent for Grassi and de Montebello: the Stoclet vendors had prepared a “four-inch thick” legal contract document and refused to allow the picture to be examined technically by the three big museums (the Met, the Getty and the Louvre) selected by Christie’s to bid in a private treaty sale. In 2003, the vendors had withdrawn the picture at the last moment from a big Duccio exhibition in Siena at which specialists would have had the first opportunity since 1935 to examine the picture – not one of the four Duccio scholars who had published monographic studies since 1951 had ever seen the picture which was known only by an old black and white photograph.

MARKETING “A LAST DUCCIO” AND “A LAST LEONARDO” AT CHRISTIE’S, NEW YORK

Above, top, Fig. 5: The Met Duccio as first photographed before 1904 (left); and as seen when sold in 2004.

Above, Fig.6: The disappeared $450 million Salvator Mundi as seen in c. 1913 (left); and as seen when sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

In 1901 no one thought the tiny Madonna and Child (Fig. 5, above, left) a Duccio. Some thought it a Sano di Pietro. The picture had emerged after 1900 and, just like the Salvator Mundi (above, Fig. 6), it did so without provenance. It was said to have been found in a Tuscan antiques shop by Count Stroganoff, a Russian friend of Bernard Berenson and a big collector of “inediti” works that had not appeared in scholarly publications or exhibitions. Stroganoff had it restored and cradled. When, after buying it, Met conservators removed the cradle in 2005 (the year the Salvator Mundi was bought in a provincial U.S. sale for less than the low estimate of $1,200 – for $1,000 plus a $175 charge – it, as mentioned, having been turned down by Christie’s), they found that the panel’s originally gesso-ed back had been scraped down to the bare wood which bore a pencilled ascription to “Segna della Buoninsegna”, an apparent confusion between the Ducciesque painter Segna di Buonaventura and Duccio. In 1904 the head of the Uffizi Gallery judged it “in the manner of Duccio”. When an exhibition of early Sienese painting was held in 1904, a friend of Berenson’s, Carlo Placci, commended a late inclusion of Stroganoff’s recently restored picture which by then was incorporated within a larger frame bearing a metal plaque announcing a Duccio. Stroganoff had attributed his own antique shop purchase. Berenson’s circle would usher it into stardom at a time of considerable intellectual and financial crisis for the scholar – his principal source of income had dried; finding part-replacements for it were proving elusive; he had stopped writing. (Ironically, Berenson had held hopes until 1904 of finding employment as an advisor on Italian purchases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

By 1904, as Frances Vieta discovered, Stroganoff had no fewer than eight similarly small gold background Sienese style panels, one of which was ascribed to Duccio’s follower Simone Martini and later bequeathed to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The “Simone Martini” had been dismissed in 1901 by the art historian Giorgio Bernardini as “so heavily restored in the skin tones, and in the red and blue robes, that it is not easy to attribute to anyone.” After seeing it at the Hermitage in 1929, George Martin Richter complained (Burlington Magazine): “Beneath this mantle there is concealed not an organically constructed body but a form rather suggestive of a bag full of washing.”

For all the Christie’s Hype, the Met had bought a Berenson Family-accredited pig in a poke. The museum came under challenge. In 1984 the now c. $50 million picture had been rejected by one of the Big Three Duccio Specialists, Florens Deuchler. ArtWatch International’s founder, Professor James Beck, wrote to the Met’s Chairman, calling for an inquiry and advising the museum to ask for its money back (see Beck’s, From Duccio to Raphael – Connoisseurship in Crisis, 2006, Italy, chapter 6 and Addendum). The Duccio pedigree, like that of the Salvator Mundi, is short, modern and precarious. The Salvator Mundi had no pre-20th century history. The Met’s official history of the Duccio begins not in 1901, when no-one considered it a Duccio, but in 1904 after it had been attributed by Bernard Berenson’s wife, Mary Logan (once), and (twice) by Berenson’s protégé, Frederick Mason Perkins, who trained in music, not art history. Christiansen elaborated: “from that point on the picture has held a central place in the Duccio literature”. Central, but with an unseen and unexamined work that had been dismissed by scholars on its six centuries-late emergence. The then 28-year old Perkins, is cast by Christiansen as a leading specialist in Sienese painting when Logan had written his first article and most of his first book.

Worse, as Vieta further established, Perkins was a fount of lucrative attributional errors. In 1923, he advised Helen Frick (then creating the incredible scholarly resource that is today’s Frick Research Library) to buy two huge marble sculptures from an antiques dealer for $150,000. He attributed these “wonderful” sculptural “masterpieces” to Duccio’s heir, Simone Martini. They had recently been made by the sculptor/forger, Alceo Dossena. Perkins’s fee was ten per cent. In 1933 he attributed an unpublished Madonna and Child surrounded by Angels to Duccio in an article carried in La Diana. The Belgian collector Adolphe Stoclet, the then owner of the now-Met Duccio, bought that second “Perkins Duccio”. In 1989 it was loaned to the Cleveland Museum of Art and there identified by Gianni Mazzoni, an Italian scholar of Sienese art and its forgers, as by the forger Icilio Federico Joni – which experience might have chilled the Stoclet family. Joni is known to have run a little factory of forgers whose works were put onto the market by middlemen, one of whom was Perkins himself. The lynchpin of Christiansen’s case for the “Met Duccio” is Berenson’s subsequent (private) hymning of the Stoclet picture as the loveliest and most characteristic thing Duccio ever did to the Duveen firm which paid him ten per cent on Italian purchases. Despite Berenson’s effusions, Duveen would not touch the “very small and ineffective” picture with a “nearly black” robe.

AN UNPUBLISHED TECHNICAL EXAMINATION AT THE MET

A top-secret post-purchase technical examination of the Duccio was carried out at the Metropolitan Museum. Staff were forbidden to talk to the press. No reports were published. The findings were discussed by Christiansen in the February 2007 Apollo. That article carried an x-ray of the painting showing modern, round-headed, wire nails underneath the picture’s ancient, badly distressed, “candles-burnt” gesso-ed frame. That hard, subversive material fact drew no comment (- other than ours in three consecutive issues of The Jackdaw, in 2008-09, as reprised in this post.) No comment was made, either, about the Met Duccio’s eccentric and pronounced craquelure. Scarcely less remiss than these “material” silences was the Met’s failure to acknowledge and address the uncharacteristically sloppy drawing of the figures, as revealed by infra-red imaging (see Fig. 7, below, centre).

Above, Fig. 7: Left, an infra-red image of the National Gallery’s Duccio triptych (detail); centre, an infra-red image of the Met Duccio (detail); right, an infra-red image of the National Gallery’s indisputably Duccio panel, The Annunciation.

De Montebello, Christiansen and the Met picture restorer Dorothy Mahon travelled to London in autumn 2004 to view the Duccio at Christie’s. They were buying “blind” (unable to conduct technical examinations of the kind made on the other Stoclet/Perkins Duccio) and in knowledge that “the Louvre was working on trying to get the money together”. They spent an hour and a half at Christie’s where “The director made an offer for it on the spot”, and they all then went to see the National Gallery’s “rare and very beautiful Duccio triptych” – “a touchstone of Duccio’s work” (detail, above, left) so that the director “might assure himself that the two works were equivalent”. It would have been better to have gone to the National Gallery first, not only to see the triptych but to study its historical and technical dossiers, and those of the gallery’s absolutely secure Duccio Annunciation. Having bought the picture, all three “felt ‘ours’ was every bit as fine and in some respects more intimate and direct” than the triptych and was “a painting that represented the artist at the very height of his powers”. Two Duccio specialists, Deuchler and James Stubblebine, thought the NG triptych “Shop of Duccio: Simone Martini”.

Having thus bought very expensively without a trace of “buyer’s remorse”, other possible grounds for concern may have been overlooked. For example, Christie’s had won the right to conduct its private, three-museum sale by putting “a significantly higher valuation on the painting than anyone else – by multiples”, as Nicholas Hall, the international director of Christie’s Old Masters department, later told the New Yorker (Calvin Tomkins, “The Missing Madonna”, 11 July 2005). When Hall invited Christiansen (an old friend) to lunch to show him a recent transparency of the Stoclet Madonna, he was immediately smitten and proactive. As he later recalled: “‘Fantastic, how about the price?’ I asked. He told me. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I will deal with that later,’ and then we finished our lunch.” (Danny Danziger, Museum – Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007.)

Had the Met officers opted to compare the under-drawing of the three works, as above, Fig. 7, before buying, they might have seen that on the quality of drawing one of the three was the other two’s inferior. If we think of the three images as a triptych, it is striking how much more fully and vividly realised the draperies and figures are as form in the two “wings”. Consider the left and centre under-drawing: in the outer image the drapery folds are not notionally indicated with lines that converge, as on the Met picture, but are realised, in anticipation, as autonomous three-dimensional folds and hollows that move over and around the implicit body within – one senses, for example, precisely where the unseen elbow is located, this being no “bag of washing”. The contour on the National Gallery Madonna’s outer edge is not depicted, as is the case in the Met picture, with a long un-lovely single continuous unbroken line of few deviations along which it is impossible to sense the elbow’s location. Rather, it is conceived and shown as a record of the points at which the forms and undulations of the cloth turn away from the viewer. Such differences of drawing speak of radically differing degrees of plastic/sculptural sensibility and comprehension. That on the left is greatly and decisively more sculptural, dynamically expressive, and plausible as a figure adjusting itself to support the weight of a child. Drawing has rightly been described as the probity of art and, as such, its study and evaluation must be considered one of the most pertinent and indispensable tools of critical analysis.

In the face of artistic weaknesses Christiansen blusters: “The drapery of the Virgin is astonishingly three-dimensional in the way it falls over the arm; it’s like a Roman sculpture.” All style judgements are relative: this is more, or less, or identical with, that. When drawing is weak, associated aspects often prove deficient. Viewing the triptych immediately after the Christie’s Duccio, Christiansen noted the former “struck a slightly different key than the picture we had been examining.” That difference, as the Met’s subsequent examinations disclosed, had a material basis. Ultramarine pigment was used in the triptych as opposed to the Met picture’s cheaper azurite. Moreover, the painted relief of the triptych’s ultramarine blue drapery was modelled not so much by progressive (and chromatically-debilitating – as Duveen had complained) dilution with white pigment, but by the addition of carbon black shading enriched by a red glaze – a tri-partite finish made with the best materials – and one that was emulated by Modestini on the background of the Salvator Mundi. Modestini has given two accounts of her actions. They both merit attention, because both are more detailed, and frank, than is commonly encountered in restoration reports.

REPLICATING HISTORICAL AUTHENTICITY TO PRODUCE A “DIFFERENT, ALTOGETHER MORE POWERFUL IMAGE”

Writing in a 2012 conservation report (see below), Modestini recalled:

“There were actually two stages of the current restoration. In 2008 when it went to London to be studied by several Leonardo experts, there was less retouching: I hadn’t replaced the glazes on the orb, finished the eyes, suppressed the pentimenti of the thumb and stole, and several other small details, but, chiefly the painting still had the mud-coloured modern background that was close in tone to the hair. Two years later I was troubled by the way the background encroached upon the head, trapping it in the same plane as the background. Having seen the richness of the well-preserved browns and blacks in the London Virgin of the Rocks”, and based on the fragments of black background which had not been covered up by the repainting, I suggested to the [then two] owners that it might be worthwhile to try to recover the original background and finish the incomplete restoration.

“I began to remove the overpaint mechanically under the microscope. Where it had been protected by the Verdigris [layer, that had been scraped off “at an unknown date and replaced by a mud-coloured background”], the original background was intact, and much of it survived under messily applied fill material. The difference between the original black and the modern brown was dramatic.

“The initial cleaning was promising especially where the Verdigris had preserved [because applied soon after?] the original layers. Unfortunately, in the upper parts of the background, the paint had been scraped down to the wood and in some cases to the wood itself. Whether or not I would have begun had I known, is a moot point. Since the putty and overpaint were quite thick I had no choice but to remove them completely. I repainted the large missing areas in the upper part of the painting with ivory black and a little cadmium light, followed by a glaze of rich warm brown, then more black and vermilion. Between stages I distressed and then retouched the new paint to make it look antique. The new colour freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image. At close range and under strong light the new background paint is obvious, but at only a slight remove it closely mimics the original.

“The retouching was done with time-tested materials.” Viz: “with dry pigments bound with PVA AYAB. Translucent water colours, mainly ivory black and raw siena, were used for final glazes and to draw [fake age] cracks. For the black background both AYAB and Maimeri Colori per restauro were used. Except for the background, I mainly used treble 0 sable watercolor brushes in a series of vertical passes until the area of loss matched the surrounding material.”

RESTORATIONS BEGET RESTORATIONS

In her 2018 memoir, Masterpieces, Modestini recalled:

“When the painting returned [in 2008 from London] to New York, I saw it on many occasions and became increasingly dissatisfied with my hastily concluded restoration. This is inevitable, especially when the painting is a damaged work by a great artist. Although I was aware of this, I itched to have it back. Leonardo’s [sic] Virgin of the Rocks in London had just been cleaned, and I made an appointment to see it. It is relatively well-preserved and, at that time, the only Leonardo that was not encumbered with centuries-old, thick, yellow, decayed coats of varnish like the Mona Lisa and the St John the Baptist in the Louvre. When I saw it, I was struck by the richness and depth of Leonardo’s blacks and realized that the principal problem of the Salvator Mundi was that the image was imprisoned by the nineteenth-century, sludge-colored repaint of the background. In a few areas, mostly around the contours of the figure, the original deep black was visible, and I knew from one [!] of the cross sections that Leonardo had paid great attention to it, building it up with four layers consisting of two different blacks, and black mixed with vermilion. I explained this to Robert [Simon], who immediately understood.

“For retouching [aka repainting] I use high-quality dry pigments, and I had a number of different blacks to work with – bone black, which Leonardo was known to favor, and a sixty-year-old tin of finely ground, pure ivory black that I had inherited from Mario [Modestini], which is no longer made. I had never used it but suddenly remembered Mario talking about how special it was…After I had polished and distressed my new paint, the result was reasonably satisfactory, at least when compared to the previous iteration. The difference it made to the painting was astounding: the great head surged forward and became much more powerful. I allowed myself to think that the decision I had taken was not so terrible after all. With the figure now more prominent and three-dimensional, some minor areas of loss and wear began to clamor for attention. This sequence is an essential part of the process of restoring a damaged painting.

“Luke Syson, the curator of the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition, asked to borrow the painting, notwithstanding some cavilling from colleagues about exhibiting a work that was on the market…”

Where Modestini was licensed by the owners to act as a painter-in-arms with Leonardo, Christiansen downplayed the triptych’s greater richness of effects and materials by deeming it “Obviously…a deluxe object” made for a rich client as opposed to “the first owner of the Metropolitan’s [who] was also someone of wealth or social standing”. If the force of that distinction is not immediately apparent, there are other, no less telling, differences where cost is immaterial: the triptych’s under-drawing was made with a quill pen – the instrument said to be Duccio’s favourite. That of the Met painting was made with brush… Making repeated allowances for atypical traits is never reassuring. Modestini has disclosed that although the all-blue draperies of the disappeared ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi are of ultramarine, it is of low grade – as was the panel on which it was painted. (In 2019 Simon reported that the ultramarine had not undergone full purification and had retained large particles of quartz.) It has been claimed, as described below, that by some technical quirk, whenever the restored Salvator Mundi is re-varnished, the forms of the true left shoulder draperies expand or contract in numbers (see Fig. 8, below) precisely as occurred between 2011 when the picture was at the National Gallery, and 2017, when it was on offer at Christie’s.

ART WORLD CLOAK AND DAGGER

Above, Fig. 8: Left, top, and detail below left, the Salvator Mundi when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12 as a long-lost autograph Leonardo painted prototype Salvator Mundi; right, top, and detail below right, the (disappeared) Salvator Mundi when offered in 2017 at Christie’s, New York, as a long-lost autograph Leonardo painted prototype Salvator Mundi with “an unusually strong consensus”.

In her 2018 memoir, Masterpieces, Modestini describes how the painting was brought to her place of work at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts’ Conservation Center in 2017:

“…I called [the Sandy Heller Group] immediately and was told the Salvator Mundi would be arriving in New York shortly and I was not to inform anyone. On Wednesday evening, July 19, the painting was delivered to the Conservation Center under guard and in great secrecy and was stored in the vault.”

Why? Does Christie’s lack safe storage facilities? Modestini seems to have made preparations for the picture to be sent on its whistle-stop global promotional tour even though she does not approve of such risks being taken: “I had some concerns…A museum would not have agreed to this but the painting was on the market, and I realized that it was essential that prospective buyers in far-flung locations could examine it in person.” With a colleague, she “supervised the reframing and packing at Christie’s.” Why, and on whose authority was it sent to an academic institution, under guard and in great secrecy before being dispatched on its global tour? And, what happened to the painting between being stored in the Conservation Center’s vault and its being prepared for that world tour by Modestini, at Christie’s, New York? For Christie’s explanation of this episode, see Dalya Alberge’s “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years”. The Christie’s spokeswoman said to Alberge: “Prior to its presentation for sale at Christie’s, Modestini partially cleaned the passage of paint in the shoulder and the dark streaks disappeared”. So, to disappearing books and catalogues, and paintings, must be added disappearing features within a disappeared painting. It is a pity that Modestini, while describing the manner in which the Salvator Mundi painting returned to her safe-keeping in NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, drew a veil over her own actions therein when writing her 2018 memoir Masterpieces. There are so many questions now dangling: “Why did a small painting that was cleaned in a day and had then undergone several campaigns of restoration over six-years between 2005 and 2011, receive further, covert, treatment just six years later? When Modestini first worked on the painting its varnish was “sticky”. Was it sticky once-more when sold for nearly half a billion dollars in 2017? The disappearances within the painting are one concern. Another is the differences between the picture’s appearance in 2011 when launched at the National Gallery as by Leonardo and its appearance in 2017 when offered to the world in a different guise at Christie’s, New York, as a National Gallery-endorsed miraculously discovered and recovered Leonardo. Those unexplained differences might seem encapsulated in our early split-halves composite image of Christ’s face (as shown below at Fig. 10) where there is a mismatch between the two halves. This Christ has had two faces in our times, the later one with more colour in the cheeks and more focussed eyes. Clearly, both cannot be taken as recovered authentic faces, so the real and urgent question is: Should either of them ever have been presented as Leonardo’s own work?

Above, Fig. 9: Top, left, the Salvator Mundi, c. 1913, when in the Cook Collection; top right, the Salvator Mundi as catalogued by the St Charles Gallery, New Orleans, as “After Leonardo da Vinci” for the April 9-10 2005 sale. Above, left, the Salvator Mundi as taken to the restorer, Dianne Modestini in April 2005 (with a still sticky varnish); right, the picture in May 2008 when about to be taken by Robert Simon (as above) to the National Gallery for a (confidential) examination by a small and select group of Leonardo scholars, after the first stage (as described above) of Modestini’s restorations .

Above, Fig. 10: Left, the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi face, as exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery; right, the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi face, as offered at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

A POST HOC SALVATOR MUNDI LITERATURE

As will be examined in Part II, our challenges to the perpetually mutating and “improving” Salvator Mundi were made: a) within days of its November 2011 launch at the National Gallery; b) nearly a month before Christie’s November 2017 sale; c) five days before Christie’s 2017 sale; d) the day before Christie’s sale; and, subsequently, e) in nearly a score of posts – see Endnote below. The undisclosed identity of the original owners was only uncovered in September 2018 (by The Washington Post). Until that date and disclosure, the true purchase price in 2005 was exaggerated ten-fold by both the original owners and the painting’s advocates -and therefore in all press reports over a thirteen-year period. The publication of researches that had been promised in 2011 by the owners and by the National Gallery did not occur until 2019 and, even then, it was not in full.

Four recently published books now comprise a small, belated literature on the rise and demise of the long-unloved Leonardo School work that morphed into the world’s most expensive and least visible picture. They were: Living With Leonardo – Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond, by Professor Martin Kemp, London, 2018; Masterpieces (“Based on a manuscript by Mario Modestini” and with informative chapters on: the Salvator Mundi; Cleaning Controversies; and, Misattributions, Studio Replicas and Repainted Originals) by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Italy, 2018; The Last Leonardo – The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting, by Ben Lewis, London, 2019; and, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi & The Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts, by Margaret Dalivalle, Martin Kemp, & Robert B. Simon, Oxford, 2019.

Until those four works appeared, the literature consisted of the catalogue entry “Christ as Salvator Mundi, about 1499 onwards” in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition catalogue by its curator, Luke Syson; and, Dianne Modestini’s account of the Salvator Mundi’s restoration and art historical credentials that was delivered in January 2012 at a National Gallery conference and published in 2014 as “The Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered History technique and condition” in Leonardo da Vinci’s Technical Practice, Paintings, Drawings and Influence, Ed. Michel Menu, Paris. Both Syson’s and Modestini’s accounts acknowledged indebtedness to the private researches of one of the picture’s owners, the New York dealer, Robert Simon.

Specifically, Syson declared in 2011: “This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others. I am grateful to Robert Simon for making available his research and that of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi and, (for the picture’s provenance) Margaret Dalivalle, all to be published in a forthcoming book.” In 2014 Modestini acknowledged having benefited from “…the knowledge and good eyes of Robert Simon with whom I worked closely on the restoration for six years and who generously shared with me the results of his research for this paper. I am especially indebted to Nica Gutman Rieppi, Associate Conservator in the Kress Program at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, who took the samples, made the cross-sections and coordinated the analytic work which was carried out with great thoroughness, precision and dedication by Beth Price and Kenneth Sunderland, research scientists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with the help of Dr Thomas J. Tague of Broker, Billerica, Massachusetts who carried out the ATR FTIR analysis of the sizing.”

That research had still not been published in 2013 when the picture was sold privately and under (Simon has revealed) a non-disclosure agreement through Sotheby’s for $80 million. The research had not been published by 2017, when Alan Wintermute of Christie’s wrote (in “Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi”, one among other endorsing/bolstering essays by Frances Russell, Dianne Modestini, David Franklin and David Ekserdjian, in the auction house’s 2017 Salvator Mundi book/catalogue): “The reasons for the unusually uniform scholarly consensus that the painting is an autograph work by Leonardo are several… The present painting, although only recently discovered, has already been extensively studied, with a remarkable campaign of research lead by Dr. Robert Simon. The most insightful and broad-ranging examination of the painting was presented by Luke Syson in the 2011 catalogue of the Leonardo exhibition in London. The following discussion depends heavily on Dr. Syson’s entry, which itself drew on the unpublished research made available to him by Robert Simon, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi, Martin Kemp and, for the picture’s provenance, Margaret Dalivalle…” Having thus drawn the scholarly research wagons around the picture (and the auction house) Wintermute disclosed that the still-unpublished researches by Dalivalle, Kemp and Simon would not be published until 2018 – which was to say, a full seven years after the painting had been declared and exhibited as a Leonardo, at the National Gallery. In the event, and even with its pared-down authorship (see below), the book would be further delayed until 2019, by which date the mystery over the subsequently disappeared picture’s ownership and whereabouts had deepened yet further.

The Simon Researches had originally been earmarked for a book of essays to be published by Yale University Press and sold at the National Gallery’s “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” exhibition. That book proved to be the first on this Salvator Mundi picture that failed to materialise. Reasons for its demise were volunteered by Professor Martin Kemp in his Living with Leonardo:

“Robert [Simon] thought it was a good idea to publish a book of essays by various authors, including Margaret Dalivalle and myself. Yale University Press, which does not normally publish monographs on single paintings, was signed up as publisher. I was happy to go along with this, while expressing reservations about a volume with multiple authors being finished on time. Academics are notably adept at missing deadlines, and I was unconvinced that all the authors actually had anything new to say… In the event the complete book was not delivered and, deprived of the rationale of selling a good number of books at the time of the show, Yale withdrew.”

A GOOD SHEPHERD, AN UTTERLY FANTASTIC CONSENSUS AND A DONE-DEAL

The long-promised book of essays emerged in 2019 (through Oxford University Press) as the Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon compilation – but without a proper technical account of the picture’s campaigns of restoration and technical examination. Simon presents the book as “the first to treat the subject monographically” and “the first complete analysis of this essential addition to Leonardo’s oeuvre”. The authors liken their authorially-trimmed exercise to a three-act opera with each act constituting an in-depth facet of the story while “necessarily bypassing many ancillary issues”. The first act is said to chronicle the painting’s “journey from anonymity in America, with no provenance and in severely compromised condition, to its public revelation as a work by Leonardo at the exhibition in London. The six-year process of research and conservation is related by Robert Simon, who shepherded the Salvator Mundi on this remarkable journey…” When Simon took the painting to London in May 2008 (Fig. 9, above) to show it to a select group of Leonardo scholars assembled at the National Gallery, he made a good and lasting impression on Martin Kemp who, in his 2018 memoir, underscored Simon’s decisive role in the institutionally and ethically problematic attribution upgrade:

…A general discussion followed. Robert Simon, the custodian of the picture (whom I later learned was its co-owner), outlined something of its history and its restoration. He seemed sincere, straightforward and judiciously restrained, as proved to be the case in all our subsequent contacts. We looked, we talked and we looked again. It was a remarkable occasion. By the time I left, I was determined to research every aspect of the Salvator Mundi. It seemed at first sight to resonate deeply with key aspects of Leonardo’s science of art, and his views of the role of God in the cosmos.

I remained in touch with Robert Simon who is strongly committed to scholarly research. I learned that the eloquent painting we had viewed was in fact one of the known versions of the Salvator Mundi, formerly in the Cook Collection – previously heavily overpainted, it had now been cleaned and retouched. It had never before received serious attention; we had paid only passing attention to the black and white photograph of it [Fig. 6] that had occasionally been used as an illustration…

All of the witnesses in the gallery’s conservation studio were sworn to confidentiality [by whom?] and the painting travelled back to New York with Robert. It was becoming ‘a Leonardo’ […and later: ‘Robert quietly introduced the Salvator Mundi to a judicious selection of experts, who – remarkably, given the usual leakiness of the art world – kept their counsel for three years. By the time the painting emerged in public there was a critical mass of influential voices who would speak in the painting’s favour.’]

…Was it on the market? Would exhibiting it mean that the National Gallery was tacitly involved in a huge act of commercial promotion? It seemed highly likely that it was also ‘in the trade’. All I knew at this stage was that it was being represented by Robert Simon. He told me that it was in the hands of a ‘good owner’ who intended to do the right thing by it, and I did not enquire further. I was keen to consider the painting in its own right, not in relation to ownership. I speculated, of course, that Robert might have a financial interest, perhaps a share in its ownership, and I assumed he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf…

It was, however, a great surprise to find that the Salvator was to be sold at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 in a mega-auction of celebrity works of art from the modern era. The auctioneers sent the painting on a glamorous marketing tour of Hong Kong, San Francisco and London. I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.”

TIGHT LIPS

The anonymity of which Simon spoke was a self-imposed, prolonged tactical ploy. In 2013, the three art dealing co-owners, Alexander Parish, Robert Simon and Warren Adelson (who in 2010 bought a one-third share for $10 million, thereby giving Simon and Parish a ten-thousand-fold return in five years on their $1,000 purchase), realised that because it was known within the opaque but gossipy art trade that the picture was being offered to museums, it would be too risky to put it to public auction: “there’s not a deader-in-the-water [thing] than a picture which you put up for auction and which then bombs”, Parish told Ben Lewis: “Supposing we had put a pretty reasonable price on the Salvator Mundi – let’s say we put a $100 million reserve on it – and it tanked, where do you go from there? Absolutely dead.”

The unidentified consortium of owners had other needs for opacity. Again, Parish to Lewis: “We’re a little opaque as to the date and location of acquisition. We purposefully have never corroborated Louisiana as the place where we bought it. And I’m not going to now. Why? Because some grandson of whoever these people are who sold it is going to decide, ‘Oh, that’s my $450 million picture. Who can I sue?’” Parish identified a third danger in professional transparency: “Part of the reason for the secrecy was the mechanics, if you will, that Bob [Simon] had to employ to get the utterly fantastic consensus that he compiled. Because in academic realms, if A says yes, B’s going to say no, just to be a dick. It’s not unheard of that certain experts are contrarian just because an opposing expert has said something else.” That last may sometimes occur but witnessing such spats enables the scholarly and art market communities to gauge the relative strengths of competing or conflicted argument and evidence. In art attributions and art restorations, as in law and in politics, things work better when propositions, expertise and evidence are subject to open appraisal and interrogation. Syson’s exclusion from the May 2008 National Gallery examination of the two leading Leonardo specialists most likely to respond negatively to the picture drew Lewis’s attention and is discussed below. The National Gallery’s preference for a select group of experts was disclosed by Kemp in 2018 when he published his March 2008 invitation to the event from the National Gallery’s new director, Nicholas Penny:

I would like to invite you to examine a damaged old painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi which is in private hands in New York. Now it has been cleaned, Luke Syson and I, together with our colleagues in both painting and drawings in the Met, are convinced that it is Leonardo’s original version, although some of us consider that there may be [parts] which are by the workshop. We hope to have the painting in the National Gallery sometime later March or in April so that it can be examined next to our version of the Virgin of the Rocks. The best-preserved passages in the Salvator Mundi are very similar to parts of the latter painting. Would you be free to come to London at any time in this period? We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

TWO OF A KIND

Note: the claimed similarities between the two supposed autograph Leonardo pictures would once have weighed heavily against the Salvator Mundi. A former director of the National Gallery and a Leonardo specialist, Kenneth Clark, had said of the gallery’s version of the Virgin of the Rocks “A pupil did the main work of drawing and modelling, and before his paint was dry, Leonardo put in the finishing touches. Most of these have been removed from the Virgin’s face but remain in the angel’s, where perhaps they were always more numerous” – see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 Billion Leonardo Restoration”. As for claims of the Cook Salvator Mundi being a long-lost prototype-for-all-other-versions, Clark judged it “one of the versions ‘less close to the [presumed] original’”. He attended the 1958 sale at Sotheby’s where this very Salvator Mundi version limped away for £45 to the United States, and hence, eventually, to Louisiana in 2005, where it would draw just two bids and fetch its $1,000 plus $175 charges – thus, below the picture’s low estimate of $1,200. Even with the overheads of a castle to find, Clark had money to spend on art. As he reported to Bernard Berenson: “In a fit of madness I even bought some pictures at the sale of the remnants of the Cook Collection, including a very beautiful Alonso Cano of Tobias and the Angel, and a Giulio Romano; also a splendid Granet. They were sold for the price of a small Cézanne pencil drawing…” (Letter, 14 July 1958, in My dear B. B. The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925-1959, ed. Robert Cumming, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.)

THE NATIONAL GALLERY’S SHOW-CASING WITH EXTRA OOMPH

Four months before its 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition the National Gallery defended its decision to include the undocumented privately-owned painting as “an important opportunity to test this new attribution”. Had the painting been included on precisely those terms and shown when cleaned and not-yet restored few would have complained at an opportunity to see a recently discovered version of the Leonardo school Salvator Mundi. That did not happen. It did not happen because Penny had become an instant partisan of the proposed upgrade and was advising Simon on building a necessary consensus of scholarly support for the picture when, all the while, the picture was undergoing transforming campaigns of restoration in accordance with Simon’s (anthropomorphising) conviction that the picture should be allowed to “live once again as a work of art”. Instead of a disinterested display of the work “as-was” after cleaning and before restoration, the Gallery exhibited it after multiple bouts of restoration, the second of which was made in declared emulation of the National Gallery’s own (questionable) version of The Virgin of the Rocks, as a miraculously recovered and, supposedly “long-lost” Leonardo. Begging a monumentally large question of attribution in this manner was a plain abuse of institutional authority and – given the picture’s fanciful and preposterously bloated provenance – a gross misrepresentation of the historical record to boot.

When Ben Lewis asked Luke Syson why the work had been catalogued unequivocally as a Leonardo, he replied: “I catalogued it more firmly in the exhibition as a Leonardo because my feeling at that point was that I was making a proposal and I could make it cautiously or with some degree of scholarly oomph. It is important not to float an idea without saying where you yourself stand on it.” Syson was standing on a house of (double-borrowed) cards. When the exhibition opened on 9 November 2011 our first objection was published within days – see Figs. 11 and 12 below.

Above, Fig. 11: Left, a detail of 1650 etched copy by Wenceslaus Hollar of a painting then attributed to Leonardo that was being claimed to be a record of the Salvator Mundi version in the National Gallery; right, ArtWatch UK letters contesting the attribution on the absence within the painting of optical features recorded by Hollar.

Above, Fig. 12: Left, a detail of the Salvator Mundi as it was immediately before its disappearance in 2017; right, top, AWUK diagrams highlighting many optical differences between the Hollar copy and the painting exhibited at the National Gallery.

SCHOLARLY RESPONSES TO THE NATIONAL GALLERY’S LEONARDO ATTRIBUTION

In the event, the Leonardo attribution was publicly challenged by at least four scholars in reviews of the 2011-12 National Gallery exhibition. Carmen Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum and author of the major 2019 four-volumes Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, rejected the Leonardo attribution in a 2012 Apollo review of the National Gallery exhibition and gave the painting to Leonardo’s student Boltraffio (with possible modifying touches by Leonardo). Frank Zöllner of Leipzig University and author of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné, Leonardo da Vinci – The Complete Paintings (Bibliotheca Universalis) had said ahead of the exhibition that the proportions of the nose were “too long” for such a perfectionist as Leonardo and were more likely to have been painted by a talented follower. When the late husband of the restorer, Mario Modestini, first saw the Salvator Mundi he thought it by a very great artist a generation after Leonardo.

Later, in the revised 2017 edition of his book, Zöllner said of the ex-Cook Salvator Mundi that while it surpasses the other known versions in terms of quality, it: “also exhibits a number of weaknesses. The flesh tones of the blessing hand, for example, appear pallid and waxen, as in a number of workshop paintings. Christ’s ringlets also seem to me too schematic in their execution [Fig. 6, above], the larger drapery folds too undifferentiated, especially on the right-hand side [Fig. 8, above]. They do not begin to bear comparison with the Mona Lisa, for example. It is therefore not surprising that a number of reviewers of the London Leonardo exhibition initially adopted a sceptical stance (Bambach 2012; Hope 2012; Robertson 2012; Zöllner 2012). In view of the arguments put forward to date and the above-mentioned weaknesses, we might sooner see the Salvator Mundi as a high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop, painted only after 1507, on whose execution Leonardo was substantially involved. It will probably only be possible to arrive at a more informed verdict on this question after the results of the painting’s technical analyses have been published in full (Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon 2017).”

As seen, the Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon account did not materialise until 2019. Recently, Professor Charles Hope, former director of the Warburg Institute, pinned the scholarly nub in the London Review of Books (“A Peece of Christ”):

“Many of those who specialise in making such attributions have great confidence in their own judgment, even when this has proved fallible, and they tend to discount or give a tendentious spin to documentary evidence and information about provenance that does not fit with their theories.”

In 2017, Christie’s, New York, cited fifteen scholars as supporters of the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo ascription. They were:

Mina Gregori, Nicholas Penny, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Carmen Bambach, Andrea Bayer, Keith Christiansen, Everett Fahy, Michael Gallagher – the Met’s head of picture restoration, David Allan Brown, Maria Teresa Fiorio, Martin Kemp, Pietro C. Marani, Luke Syson, David Ekserdjian and Vincent Delieuvin.

One, Carmen Bambach, as seen above, had rejected the ascription in 2011. As also seen above, another, Delieuvin, has now downgraded the picture to a school work. Crucially, none had supported the attribution in a scholarly publication or forum, and several would disavow their inclusion in this list. When Lewis spoke to the select and confidential group of five Leonardo scholars invited to see the Salvator Mundi at the National Gallery (Pietro Marani, Maria Teresa Fiorio, Carmen Bambach, David Alan Brown and Martin Kemp), he discovered that only two had committed to a Leonardo attribution; two had declined to express an opinion; and one had rejected it.

Moreover, Lewis noted two striking omissions from the event that would likely have tipped the balance. One was our colleague, Jacques Franck, a Leonardo expert who had advised Syson on the restoration of the National Gallery’s version of the Virgin of the Rocks – much as he had done at the Louvre with its Leonardo restorations. Like others, Franck identifies two authorial hands in the Salvator Mundi picture, but he sees no participation by Leonardo in the painting – see his “Further thoughts about the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi” and our “The Louvre Museum’s bizarre charge of ‘fake information’ on the $450 million Salvator Mundi”.

The second was Frank Zöllner, who then had recently written within his catalogue raisonné of Leonardo’s paintings: “In conclusion, mention must be made of the increasing attempts, above all in recent years, to attribute second- and third-class paintings to Leonardo’s hand. In this context it should be noted that the catalogue of paintings presented here is definitive. While there may be works circulating in the fine art trade that stem from Leonardo’s pupils, the likelihood of an original by the master himself ever making a new appearance is extremely small.”

Syson admitted to Lewis that Zöllner’s omission had been a mistake but justified Franck’s exclusion on the grounds that as a trained painter he was “too far outside the world of academic and institutional art history to be invited in to this project”.

Michael Daley, Director, 12 (& 24) August 2020

In Part II, we outline reasons why it might sometimes be of assistance to scholars and curators to heed the views of artists.

Endnote: ArtWatch UK Posts on the Salvator Mundi:

14 November 2017, “Problems With the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi, Part I: Provenance and Presentation”
1 January 2018, “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi, Part II: It Restores, It Sells, Therefore It Is”
20 February 2018, “A Day in the Life of the New Louvre Abu Dhabi Annexe’s Pricey New Leonardo Salvator Mundi”
27 February 2018, “Nouveau Riche? Welcome to the Club!”
11 March 2018, “In Their Own Words: No. 3 – The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi”
29 March 2018, “Startling Disclosures on the Re-re-restored Leonardo Salvator Mundi”
10 April 2018, “The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga: Three Developments”
9 August 2018, “Leonardo Scholar Challenges Attribution of $450m Painting”
18 September 2019, “How the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi became a Leonardo-from-Nowhere”
11 October 2018, “Two Developments in the No-Show Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga”
12 November 2018, “The Pear-Shaped Salvator Mundi”
6 February 2019, “The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Not ‘Pear-Shaped’ – ‘Dead-in-the Water’”
22 February 2019, “The Louvre Museum’s Bizarre Charge of ‘Fake Information on the $450 million Salvator Mundi’”
4 July 2019, “Salvator Grumpi – updated”
20 September 2019, “Forthcoming events: The Ben Lewis Salvator Mundi Lecture and the new ArtWatch UK Journal”
28 October 2019, “The non-appearing, disappeared, $450million, now officially not-Leonardo, Salvator Mundi”
15 November 2019, “Books on No-Hope Art Attributions”
5 & 11 February 2020, “The Saviour and a Stealth-Attribution”
3 August 2020, “Further thoughts about the ex-Cook Collection Salvator Mundi”


The non-appearing, disappeared, $450million, now officially not-Leonardo, Salvator Mundi

Where history is generally held to be the handiwork of victors, in the art world, losers are often quickest off the block to re-write official narratives. No sooner had the catastrophic restoration losses on the Sistine Chapel ceiling become apparent than Vatican Museum officials declared that art history would have to be re-written in light of their chemically-excavated discoveries. The art historical establishment that had underwritten the restoration’s untested technical radicalism obligingly rewrote Michelangelo (as a long-unsuspected brilliant colourist) in a score of learned articles. In Italy today that exercise might seem to have succeeded: every Italian school child now learns of the “Glorious Restoration”.

Rachel Spence, the Financial Times’ reviewer of the newly opened Louvre “not-a-blockbuster” blockbuster “Léonard de Vinci” exhibition, advised (26/27 October 2019): “Forget all the brouhaha around the ‘Salvator Mundi’ (it’s not here and shows no sign of arriving)…” How sweet that invitation not-to-address must have sounded to the Louvre authorities who had asked the day after the November 2017 sale at Christie’s, New York, to borrow the by then greatly-transformed work for their long-planned 2019 Leonardo anniversary extravaganza. That request was accompanied by one from the Royal Academy craving to include the work in their great Charles I Collection blockbuster exhibition. The 2017 sale’s outcome was taken by many of the Salvator Mundi’s advocates as an absolute validation of its post-2011 upgraded ascription.

Christie’s “unusually broad consensus” of scholarly support included Vincent Delieuvin, the co-author of the present Louvre “Léonard de Vinci” exhibition. In the 2016 catalogue to the exhibition “Leonardo in Francia – Léonard en France, 1516-2016” (Figs. 2 and 3 above), held at the Italian Embassy in Paris in September/November 2016, Delieuvin wrote, p. 286: “The composition [of Salai’s Christ in the Ambrosiana, Milan] is strikingly close to Salvator Mundi, whose autograph version seems retrieved now, unfortunately in very bad condition”. Thus, in their fig. 1 reference to the restored Cook version (shown at our Fig. 1, above right, in both its 2011-12 state at the National Gallery and its 2017 Christie’s sale state) the Louvre presented the picture as the supposedly “long-lost” autograph prototype painting for the many other Salvator Mundi versions – just as it had been claimed to be by the National Gallery, in the catalogue entry for its 2011-12 Leonardo blockbuster “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan”.

In the catalogue of the present Louvre Museum Leonardo exhibition, the (absent) Salvator Mundi is no longer attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, it is simply listed as: “Fig. 103 bis, Salvator Mundi, the Cook version, c. 1505-1515”. It is reproduced in colour (p, 305) but with no catalogue entry. A chapter (pp. 302-313) by Delieuvin is devoted to a Salvator Mundi composition that has traditionally been attributed to Leonardo, though unsupported by any contemporary archival document. In other words, the New York/Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi has reverted to being one anonymous Leonardesque painting among many “with no decisive arguments which could have let a consensus emerge [regarding the attribution to Leonardo] from the concerned specialists”. Christie’s once-vaunted “unusually broad consensus” is now no consensus at all!

Some today hold that the “brouhaha” was triggered not by the substantial and various opposition to the picture’s upgrading but by the startling auction price it achieved in 2017 ($450million). At the time of the sale, many held that the attributed picture’s astronomical sale price had crushed the work’s critics and few more so than the sometime old masters art dealer and auctioneer, Bendor Grosvenor, who gushed support for Christie’s decision to pull the Salvator Mundi away from the old masters’ sale so as to thwart the depressing effect of informed art trade “nay-sayers”:

“It’s 1 a m here in the UK and I’ve just witnessed the most extraordinary moment of auction drama at Christie’s New York (via Facebook live). Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi has sold for £400m hammer, or $450m with fees.

“The lot was first announced as ‘selling’ at $80m, which I presume represents the level of the guarantee. Bidding was then brisk to the high $100ms, before, to audible gasps in the room, the picture broke through the $200m mark. Thereafter it was a battle between two phone bidders. The winning bidder kept making unilateral bids way above the usual bidding increments. Their final gambit was to announce, with the bidding at $370m, that their next bid was $400m. This finally knocked the competition out, and – after 19 minutes – the hammer came down. Whoever it was evidently has some serious cash to burn.

“And so an Old Master painting has become the most expensive artwork ever sold. It will have completely overshadowed everything else in the sale. The next lot, a Basquiat (usually a high point for contemporary sales) bought in as the room buzzed with Leonardo chatter. Will the sale prompt people to now look anew at Old Masters? Maybe. It will surely end for good now the tired cliché that the Old Master market is dead.

“Some immediate thoughts. First, the guarantor has made a few quid, and deserves it – guaranteeing that picture at this stage in its history (post rediscovery, and in the midst of an ugly legal battle between the vendor and his agent) was quite a risk. Second, the vendor – Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev – has made about $180m. He’s in the midst of a legal battle with the person he bought the picture from, an art agent called Yves Bouvier, alleging that he was over-charged (it has been reported that Bouvier bought it from Sotheby’s for about $80m, and sold it to Rybolovlev for about $125m – allegedly). I’m not sure how that over-charging allegation plays out now.

“Third, Christie’s just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off. They marketed the picture brilliantly – the best piece of art marketing I’ve ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN [Grosvenor’s Art History News website] congratulates them all.

“Finally, despite the fact that this picture enjoyed near universal endorsement from Leonardo scholars, and had a weight of other technical and historical evidence behind it, there was a tendency in many quarters to be sniffy about it. I found this puzzling – not just because (for what it’s worth) I believed in the picture myself – since the determination amongst some to criticise the picture was in inverse proportion to their art historical expertise. It sometimes seems that the more famous the artist, the more people assume they are an expert in them. And with Leonardo being the most famous of them all, the armchair connoisseurs have been having a field day these last few weeks.

“Anyway, I’m going to bed. What a ride. I was sure the picture would sell, but never imagined it would make this much. We must all now wonder where the picture is going to end up next.”

Two years later, when we, the Louvre, and everyone else, were still wondering where the picture might be, Grosvenor, in or out of his arm chair, suffered a reverse when his earlier television-launched Great Raphael Discovery bit the dust after professional examination at the National Gallery – as we observed in the 19 August 2019 Daily Telegraph:

In 2018 Professor Martin Kemp, a key member of the Scholarly Consensus was cooler on Christie’s choice of sale in his memoir Living with Leonardo:

“It was, however, a great surprise to find that the Salvator was to be sold Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 in a mega-auction of celebrity works of art from the modern era. [Some saw that as being apt in view of the picture’s extensive repainting.] The auctioneers sent the painting on a glamorous marketing tour of Hong Kong, San Francisco and London. I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.

“The price inched upwards from less than $100 million to $450 million, shattering the world record for a work of art. The result was cheered to the rafters. I was besieged by media requests for comment. Three weeks later reports that it had been purchased by one of two Saudi princes began to circulate, prompting Christie’s to announce that it had been acquired by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the remarkable new ‘world museum’, where it will join Leonardo’s La belle Ferronnière. A public home at last, I hope.”

The brouhaha should not be brushed aside. Too many urgent issues have arisen concerning, for example, the singular debate and scrutiny-avoiding means by which the supposedly solid consensus was assembled (- and, on this, see Ben Lewis’s The Last Leonardo), and the top-secret restoration work that was carried out at the Conservation Center of New York University’s prestigious Institute of Fine Arts, during which covert operation the drapery at the (true) left shoulder of Christ was transformed and simplified (Figs. 1 above and 7 below) immediately ahead of the pre-sale world marketing tour – as revealed in “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo da Vinci painting which became the world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for $340m has been retouched in the last five years”. While in truth we still don’t know the whole story or even the post-sale whereabouts of the picture, much of the recent ground is covered in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No 32, as sampled in Figs. 5-8 below. [AWUK Journals are distributed free to members. New members receive the previous two issues – presently as shown at Fig. 1 above. For membership application details please write to Membership at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com ]

Michael Daley, Director, 28 October 2019


The Futurist Louvre and Leonardo’s Fate: nothing ventured, nothing lost

4 February 2014

The more indefensible their restorations, the more museum regimes dig in and shut their ears to criticisms. (With bad restorations the eyes, too, often seem to have been shut.) Given the controversial outcome of the Louvre’s 2011 restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne”, it might seem a provocative defiance that the museum should so soon announce that it is not only about to restore another Leonardo (his “La Belle Ferronnière”), as was reported in the Wall Street Journal on 1 February 2014 (Da Vinci Code Red: Restorations Spur Debate), but also the desperately vulnerable “Mona Lisa”.

Vincent Delieuvin, the curator driving (or heading) the restorations, makes a number of claims that lack foundation in the Wall Street Journal article. We had not dared to touch this Leonardo previously, he reportedly says, but now restoration techniques have improved to the point where the museum thinks them safe – even for the Mona Lisa which has become “yellowish and very dark”. The history of modern restoration is peppered with facile claims of technical “advances” that were rushed untested on to great works of art, soon to become the acknowledged follies of yesteryear. (We have often wondered whether the credulous techno-enthusiasts of Futurism, which movement died a swift death, had not migrated into art conservation.) Of what do these latest claimed advances consist? Have they arisen since the 2011 restoration of the “Virgin and St. Anne”, the controversial treatment of which provoked resignations from the restoration’s own advisory committee (as we reported on 28 April 2012 – “Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration”).

On the “La Belle Ferronnière” Mr Delieuvin holds that “The many layers of darkened varnish added over the centuries are getting old and make the painting dark and yellowish”. Such phobic/alarmist language is a constant feature of the would-be restorer’s rationale. After restoration, Mr Delieuvin predicts, the “contrasts and colours will come out again; so will the feeling of movement”. A long-standing (French) charge against intrusive restorers was that in their haste to “liberate” colours and dispel all signs of age in what are old paintings, they remove original material and impart a falsifying, historically inappropriate modernity. Restorers of every generation have insisted that their “advanced science” can prove that no original material was lost. In so saying, they demonstrate cultural naivety and failures to comprehend the nature of that of which art consists and the artistic and art historical, not “techno/scientific”, terrain on which all restoration evaluations should properly be conducted.

Restoration disputes stem from losses of perceived artistic values. Although artists certainly work with and through materials, the materials are not ends in themselves, or even vehicles of intrinisic value. Rather, they are the means by which the “stuff of art” is given fixed material expression. The currency with which artists work is values and the relationships between values. Through these they work by eye to produce artefacts which fix and carry their intentions, so that they might subsequently be optically apprehended by others. In the production of a painting every last feature is a product of thought. But every judgement, evaluation and adjustment is transmitted exclusively through human sight, and not, as techno-conservationists might prefer, through sub-atomic particles of matter, complex chemical formulations or other mystificatory hi-tech red herrings.

Thus, to take Mr Delieuvin’s promised delivery of increases of “contrasts and colours” in the pending Leonardo restoration, we can anticipate the outcome to some considerable degree by applying those very criteria to the last restored Louvre Leonardo, the “Virgin and St. Anne”. On that work it is clear that while an increase in the brightness of colours occurred, it was at the expense of a catastrophic reduction of contrast and strength in the tones by which the heads had been modelled and given corporeal form, as the Poussin scholar, David Packwood, very generously acknowleded on his (excellent) website Art History Today (“Aesthetic Appraisal and the Restoration Process”):

“I’m looking with growing horror at images of pre and post restoration images of the Leonardo Virgin and St Anne in the Louvre. They can be found here, in an article by the head of ArtWatch, Michael Daley. In a balanced and thoughtful post on restoration culture, Michael Daley highlights its real dangers, clearly evident in this latest example…”

When appraising restorations it is essential to do what museum curators and restorers are so clearly reluctant to do in their own catalogues and publications: place directly comparable photographs of before and after cleaning states in the closest possible proximity. This facilitates direct optical appraisal – which is the only methodologically sound and appropriate means of evaluating a work whose appearance has been transformed by a technician’s swabs, solvents, scalpels. It is never possible to compare a restored painting with its own pre-restoration condition because that is irreversibly effaced in the process. Photographs must therefore stand in lieu.

In every photo-comparison shown here of details from the “Virgin and St. Anne”, it is clear to any educated eye that the tonal range that was formerly visible has been massively reduced. This, ipso facto, is a proof of artistic injury: “dirty varnishes” could not have disported themselves in such a manner as to enhance the effects of Leonardo’s own handiwork. Moreover, the values and relationships of values that were perceivable through the varnishes before restoration would, on Mr Delieuvin’s own optical schema, be expected to emerge from a “cleaning” with greatly enhanced, not reduced, power and vivacity – in short, while the lights would certainly be expected to emerge lighter, the half tones and darks should also be strengthened and not diminished – as seen right.

Consider the comparison of the Virgin’s eyes at Figs. 5 and 6. Such has been the loss of modelling-by-shading that the face is reduced to a mask-like reminiscence of its former self. The now obtrusively dark slits of the down-cast eyes are no longer subsumed within the previous anatomically descriptive overall shading of eye sockets. Had Leonardo really painted the face as is presented today as “recovery”, it would be for the restorers, curators and trustees of the Louvre to explain how it was that dirty varnish had formerly imparted superior, Leonardesque traits to the master’s own handiwork. It would also need to be explained why Leonardo might have been content to leave two versions of the pupil of the Virgin’s right eye simultaneously visible on his finished picture.

If we consider the comparison shown at Figs. 7 and 8 of the Virgin’s lower face, another aspect of injury is apparent. That is, as the half-tones have receded under the force of swabs and solvent, the resulting increased zones of brightness leave the face looking looks both fatter and flatter. It is hardly heresy to suggest that Leonardo used shading to turn the surfaces of his heads away from light and into shadow. What kind of benefit, then, has been gained by delivering a lighter, brighter, flatter Leonardo? For what reason and on whose authority was the expression of the Virgin’s mouth altered?

As our colleague at ARIPA, Michel Favre-Felix, disclosed a few years ago, in the Veronese head shown in Figs. 10 to 13, we find evidence of a Louvre house-style of cleaning and repainting that imposes crass puffed-up modernist forms and redrawn and re-modelled features on Renaissance heads. This bizarrely unwarranted policy is accompanied by a cavalier disregard for the norms of museum-world conservation record keeping (as is evident in the Louvre spokeswoman’s reported comments at Fig. 11). The Louvre, as today constituted, is doing indefensible things to the art it holds and feels no obligation even to record or report them. The tragedy is that until quite recently this museum was a model of restoration restraint and a reproach to other institutions. Today, along with with its bonanza of destructive restorations, increasingly we find intrusive and vulgar commercial exploitation by Big Sponsors: “Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre”. To think that such a great institution could sink so swiftly into meretricious stewardship and displays of bling.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Details of the mouth of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” showing the badly fractured “topography” of the paint and varnish layers. In view of the results shown below of the recent cleaning of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St. Anne”, it is impossible to consider the prospect of a restoration of this painting with anything other than absolute dread. By what means might an attempt be made to separate the infinitely subtle brown modelling of the mouth from the ancient varnishes in which they are presently incorporated?
Above, Figs. 3a and 3b; Figs. 4a and 4b; Figs. 5, 6, 7, and 8: Comparative details of St Anne in Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St Anne” showing the head before and after its recent “cleaning” and “restoration”. In each pairing, the before cleaning state is either to the left or above the post-restoration image.
Above, Figs. 9a and 9b: The head of Leonardo’s Virgin shown before (left) and after (right) treatment.
Above, Figs. 10, 11, 12 and 13. Fig 10: The cover of the Artwatch UK members’ journal which discussed recent botched restorations at the Prado and the Louvre. Fig. 11: Coverage in The Week of Dalya Alberge’s 13 June 2010 Observer article “Louvre masterpiece by Veronese ‘mutilated’ by botched nose jobs”. Figs. 12 and 13: The Louvre’s mutilated Veronese head before (top) and after (above) its covert and unrecorded double restorations.
Below, Figs. 14a and 14b: The mutilated Louvre Veronese head (left), and the homage to the “Mona Lisa” by Botero (right) to which the several-times adulterated Veronese head now bears a strong resembance in its puffed-out forms.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre…

8 April 2012

The penny dropped last week in Paris: museum picture restoration is becoming a money-making machine in which the artistic sums may not necessarily add up. The Louvre’s restored Leonardo “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” re-appeared in a series of openings for a swish exhibition-of-celebration, “La Sainte Anne l’ultime chef-d’oeuvre de Léonardo de Vinci”, sponsored by the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo (whose 2012 fashion show is to be held within the Louvre). The official defences of the restoration are found in the exhibition literature and in a DVD film (“Leonardo de Vinci The Restoration of the Century”) celebrating “The spectacular operation, the likes of which occurs only once a century”. Although there may be a touch of “The Official” in the film, acknowledgement is certainly made of opposition to the course of the restoration that came from within the advisory committee itself. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, is seen to speak with great eloquence on the option of, essentially, leaving well enough alone. Reference is also made to wider opposition that was reported in what is described as “a virulent press campaign”. The organisation of the exhibition itself is seen to testify to the rapid growth of mutual support systems within the international museum community. At the same time, we can now better gauge the restoration’s artistic consequences and better appreciate why two eminent art authorities, Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, resigned from the restoration’s international advisory committee.

As with the Credit Suisse sponsored exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan” which gathered £1.5bn worth of Leonardos in celebration of the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18), this Ferragamo/Louvre exhibition has drawn masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and others. The National Gallery (two of whose staff members served on the St. Anne restoration’s international advisory committee) loaned its hitherto unloanable Leonardo “Burlington House Cartoon” in a straight swap for the Louvre’s earlier loan of Leonardo’s original “Virgin of the Rocks” to the London Leonardo-fest. It would seem that in this international bonanza, one restored Leonardo begets another and each begets a plumply lucrative exhibition and catalogue. The current escalation in travel and restoration risks for works of art is terrifying.

The Louvre’s current exhibition is said by the curator, Vincent Delieuvin, to comprise “a science workshop”. But this “workshop” could not inform the treatment of the painting because it followed, not preceded, the restoration. Moreover, the exhibition itself imposed a guillotine on the restoration. Members of the international advisory committee who wished for more tests, for more consideration of vexing issues, felt thwarted by the Louvre’s need to finish the restoration in time for the arrival of the stupendous borrowed treasures. The cumulative assembled testimony of the exhibition’s many borrowed copies and derivatives of the “St. Anne” might well have been instructive, but, not having been seen, it finds no reflection in the restored Leonardo which artistically has pulled away from its own off-spring (see Figs. 13-16). Delieuvin’s reported twin claims that the restoration “is a true resurrection of the ‘St. Anne’” and that “The painting has recovered a depth and a relief almost like sculpture, with an intense palette of lapis lazuli blue, lacquer red, grays and vibrant browns”, seem both rather tastelessly hyperbolic and at variance with visual evidence (- see right).

Certain structural stresses in the over-heating art economy have become visible. At the exhibition’s epicentre the “Burlington House Cartoon” and the “St. Anne” (for which picture the drawing was a study), have been brought together side by side in a spectacular but counter-productive coup de théâtre (see Figs. 13 & 14). The drawn study, now discoloured but sombrely potent in a magnificently worthy black frame, conjures a breath-taking orchestration of monumentally poetic forms, forms that rightly have been seen to rival the pedimental female groupings of the Parthenon sculptures. Since the Second World War there has been no drawing in existence to rival this fragile and brittle manifestation of the grandeur of Leonardo’s thoughts. (If lost – and in recent years lorries have been burnt-out in the Channel Tunnel and a ferry and its lorry cargo was lost in the Channel – no insurance money or state indemnity could acquire another of its kind.) In contrast, the restoration-weakened “St. Anne”, with its now arbitrarily floating, obtrusively abstract and glitzy lapis lazuli blue drapery, has departed from its formerly-realised self, as the adjacent cartoon and the exhibition’s many derivative pictures mutely testify. To see strong colours subsumed within tight sculpturally integrated groups, we must now look to derivatives of Leonardo rather than to their progenitor (see Figs. 15 & 16).

As if to inoculate the exhibition viewer against this back-firing juxtaposition, the wall immediately opposite the cartoon and the “St. Anne” carries a portentous notice headed “A fundamental restoration”:

A fundamental restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s St Anne was initially envisaged in the 1990s when a few quite conclusive cleaning tests were carried out.

The picture’s dull appearance, its hues discoloured and distorted by numerous repaintings of the sky and the Virgin Mary’s blue mantle, demanded the intervention that finally began in 2009. Minute bulges, very probably caused by the stress exerted on the picture layer by the hardening of old restoration varnishes rendered the restoration inevitable.

Preceded by an exceptional series of preliminary examinations and scientific imagery analyses carried out by the laboratories at the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF) and generously financed by Mr Barry Lam, the restoration itself began late in 2010. The restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, was chosen following an invitation to tender and worked for more than a year at the C2RMF in the painting workshop in the Pavillon de Flore.

The restoration comprised two principle problems: the removal of the discordant repaintings, some resulting from very ancient and thick accumulations of retouches, the thinning of restoration varnishes oxidised and deteriorated by too many partial cleanings, the moving of excess varnish from one area to another using solvents, retouches and refixings down the centuries throughout its long history, the picture had obviously been devarnished and revarnished many times but fortunately the picture layer had been sufficient robust to resist this. The extremely irregular and oxidised state of the surviving varnishes distorted all the tints and, by a well-known physical effect, ‘decolourised’ and yellowed the original hues.

The gradual thinning of these varnishes to a uniform level was therefore the restoration’s major challenge. During this process, resin analyses and measurements of varnish thickness, conducted by new techniques developed at the C2RMF enabled an extremely precise approach to the thinning, which had to be undertaken delicately, both to preserve a degree of patina on the picture and protect the painting itself from any contact with the solvents used. This extremely gentle cleaning process revealed a painting in vivid colours and resuscitated the splendid lapis lazuli blues and refined violet reds and crimson kermes gum lacquer.”

In this classic museum PR conflation of aesthetic and conservation “needs”, we are variously told that aesthetic changes had been necessary on urgent conservation grounds; that the restoration was “envisaged” some time ago and that this aspiration had been reinforced by the picture itself whose dull appearance “demanded” a restoration. Meeting this demand from the inanimate is said to have been made “inevitable” by a mysterious conservation ailment in the form of “minute bulges” which “very probably” were being caused by the varnish itself.

“Very probably” is a distinctly weasel-phrase and seemed the more so because Ségolène Bergeon Langle had very recently pointed out that the minute manifestations were confined to a single board (which had been badly cut when first made) within the panel, and therefore could not have derived from overall varnishes which some were itching to remove. This analysis of the actual cause was accepted on the DVD film where it was claimed that the restoration had had to proceed because of “lifting due to contraction of the wooden panel”. That raised the larger restoration question: if the varnish was not causing the lifting, was there any conservation reason for removing it at all? A frankly negative admission on that point would, of course, have greatly strengthened the position of the “moderates” on the advisory committee who were, under any circumstances, urging restraint and caution. We now hear that not only is it admitted that the liftings of paint were indeed caused by this plank, but also that they had easily been repaired locally. In hope of preventing future liftings, the panel painting is to be encased in framing that will incorporate a suitable micro-climate designed to stabilise the offending wood. On the face of it, this is good news but, in today’s museum practice, a risk removed often seems to make space for another to be incurred. And, sure enough, we also hear it is now thought that, with the provision of its own micro-climate, this great picture can be regarded as safely peripatetic – and that as such it is to be despatched in the first instance to an annexe of the Louvre at Lens, in northern France. But then where next – Tokyo? Dubai? California? And on what tariff? Perhaps in addition to adding this “restoration of the century” to our list of cleanings sold on misleading conservation-necessity prospectuses, the picture should also be put on our Now At Grave Risk of Travel Injuries category? We trust that the Louvre authorities will amend their misleading wall notice on the restoration.

The material on the picture’s surface is said to have been the accumulated product of many and various previous restorations (some with caustic substances), throughout all of which Leonardo’s original paint had suffered no injury. What chance, therefore, could the last restoration’s highly advanced, “extremely precise” techniques have produced anything other than an “extremely gentle” cleaning? Well, first of all, the proof of the pudding is in the appraising of the result – see right. Second, it is never wise to take restorers’ own prognoses at face value. Errors can occur at any point of the restoration process. The suggestion that a uniform layer of varnish had been left in place might surprise members of the international advisory committee who had been under the impression that varying thicknesses of varnish would be left in place according to specific needs for caution (as with the especially vulnerable face of “St. Anne” – see right).

Further, questions arise in terms of conservation methodological practice. In restorations, paintings are stripped down and then reassembled by repainting. Where, then, are the detailed photographic sequences showing the painting before cleaning; after cleaning but before retouching; and, after cleaning and retouching? Without such hard visual documents the path of the restoration cannot be retraced. It was only when the National Gallery kindly provided such photographs that we were able to identify an unacknowledged change that had been made to the angel’s mouth in the London “Virgin of the Rocks” (see comments at Figs. 17 & 18).

In the two versions of the Louvre exhibition catalogue (one of 52 pages at 8 Euros and one of 448 pages at 45 Euros) there are not even any facing images showing the picture before and after restoration. Such a pairing is found in the (excellent) Beaux Arts special “Léonard de Vinci – Les secrets d’un génie” at 6.90 Euros (a similar comparison is shown here in Figs. 14 & 16). There is also a helpful before and after restoration record of the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (see Figs. 17 & 18).

The Louvre and the National Gallery leonardo restorations share a common methodological feature: in both cases it is said that old varnishes were thinned but not completely removed. This claim creates a conundrum because in both cases changes have taken place which seem inexplicable in terms of a mere thinning of varnish. When explanations are sought or when appraisals are attempted, restoration authorities sometimes take fright, retreating behind claims that theirs is a highly specialised technical field whose mysteries are simply unfathomable to outsiders. Restorers themselves often don the proverbial doctors’ white coat and claim to have acted on not aesthetic grounds at all but on (quasi-) medical ones. For the “St. Anne” restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, this restoration was not made for aesthetic reasons. Instead: “This was about caring for a sick patient. From the conservation point of view we had to intervene, primarily to address a cracking of the varnish that could leave the paint exposed to damage.” Well, we now know that in this particular case the patient was not as sick as had been thought. But more importantly, we should remember at all times that works of art are made by people to be looked at by people. They are not created as laboratory specimens. Artists work with materials so as to produce values and relationships between values. No scientific test can analyse a value, let alone an inter-related group of values. To its maker, the professional test of a work of art is how it looks – the painter stops working precisely when the picture looks right.

In the realm of art and away from corporately funded museum politics, the ultimate test of a restoration is also how it looks – but that is to say, not how it strikes the passing viewer (who may or may not be thrilled by solvent-brightened colours) but how it looks now as compared with how it looked previously; how it looked not just immediately prior to restoration but in its successively recorded history; and, most especially, how it looked the last time it was cleaned. If picture cleanings did no harm, if they were as simple and non-destructive as cleaning a window, each restored work would return to its appearance when last cleaned, and there would be no surprises, “discoveries”, “revelations”, “restorations of the century” – or controversies. While no one ever berates a window cleaner for ruining the views, restorations irreversibly change a picture’s “view” on to the world. Restoration is a one-way street that runs away from history, away from the original work.

All cleaning controversies turn on the extent to which pictures suffer during restoration. Even among those who authorise restorations, some concede that there are losses as well as gains and frankly admit to seeking the best trade-off between improved legibility and pictorial injury. Defensive restorers insist that pictures cannot be harmed by their own “advanced”, “gentle” and “scientifically underpinned” methods. Making a fetish of the “safety” and the “science” of restoration methods attempts to shelve restorers responsibility to identify and account for all material and aesthetic changes. Given that all restorers’ methods cannot be superior, none should be held beyond question. With the physical alteration of art, aesthetic appraisal is essential to scholarship and art’s protection. In appraising restorations, the comparison of like with like is of the essence.

In visual arts, appraisals are necessarily made by visual comparisons. Pictures are made by eye, hand and mind, to be viewed by eye and mind. Because each cleaning destroys the earlier state, comparisons can only be made between pre and post-restoration photographs. While straightforward cleaning might always be expected to achieve a greater vivacity of pictorial effect, it should never be made at the expense of the pictorial relationships, patterns, or gradations made in the service of modelling, that can be seen to reside in the uncleaned work. If the relationships can be seen it is because they are there – whatever chemical analyses might suggest to the contrary. The aesthetic production of pictorial values by artists is the proper science of art. Unfortunately, in such terms, the values that were formerly evident in this great picture seem not to have fared well in this last cleaning.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, before cleaning. Note the artist’s very selective and artfully focussed disposition of his brightest lights, and, at the same time, the extremely subtle but sculpturally effective modelling of the Child’s right shoulder and arm. Note too, the careful placement of tonal values throughout this grouping and how successfully these values contribute to a general sense of sculptural placement in space – for example, how the Child’s left forearm recedes behind the bright wooly top of the lamb’s head, and how appreciably it recedes from the Child’s nearer right arm.
Above, Fig. 2: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, after cleaning.
How to explain the differences between these two greyscale versions above, of Figs. 3 and 4 below? It has been said that the restorer left a thin layer of varnish over the paint throughout the picture. It is hard, on the face of it and given the scale and nature of the changes that took place in this single restoration, to see how they might have resulted from a reduction rather than an elimination of the varnish (but see below). And it is hard, too, to see how a restorer, cleaning freely by hand with nothing more precise than a cotton wool swab (evidently dragged not rolled in this instance) might differentiate perfectly between the lowest level of a varnish and the upper level of an old glaze of similar colour and tonality at every point. When previous restorers had applied their varnishes, often, presumably, after harsh cleanings, would those then-new, solvent-saturated varnishes not have integrated themselves to any degree within whatever material was to hand? One question that might always be borne in mind when evaluating pre and post-cleaning states, is whether or not the cleaned (altered) state looks more or less characteristic of the artist’s known traits. (This might be held a perilously subjective notion to conservators of a certain “scientific” bent, but without such an artistic navigational system, how might any restorer proceed?) Does this after-treatment Fig. 2 detail look more Leonardesque than the before treatment detail at Fig. 1? It is hard to see how this question could be answered in the affirmative. The melting of the Child’s limbs into and out of the artist’s light in Fig. 1 seems quintessentially Leonardesque, while the after-cleaning state of Fig. 2 might be thought rather more Michelangesque by comparison. A key difference between these two great Renaissance figures (and sometime rivals) was that Michelangelo was not averse to autonomously forceful contours. Leonardo, of course, wished to out-sculpt the great sculptor with shaded simulations of form on the picture plane; with forms disposed within an envelope of space and light that was entirely of his own shaping and in no way dependent on the contingencies of the real world in which sculptors’ productions must always take their chances. The existence of the surface upon which paint was applied was a fact to be denied or concealed by the sheer force of artistry. One consequence of this cleaning is that the painting’s picture surface comes further to the fore. The restorer, Cinzia Pasquali, attributes this to the fact that although the work was known to be unfinished, “now we can actually see it”, as if that might be considered some kind of gain, but anything that causes the picture surface to compete for attention with the intended illusion upon it can hardly be thought characteristic of Leonardo’s wishes or intentions, and anything that causes a picture to seem unfinished and less resolved than previously was the case, might more realistically be taken as an aesthetic alarm call than as a vindication of raw method.
Above, Fig. 3: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, before cleaning. Work on this section of the painting produced one of the strongest and most keenly contested controversies within the international advisory committee. A “varnish” on the Child’s body was taken by the restorer (and others) to be an earlier restorer’s decayed varnish. This reading was challenged by the student of Leonardo’s painting technique, Jacques Franck, who noted that this material had contributed to the modelling of the Child to a substantial degree and in a manner that went beyond any straightforward varnish layer. He felt, therefore, that it should be preserved until no doubt existed about its precise function and date of making. He and others of this opinion called for the disputed coating to be revived rather than removed, but they were over-ruled on the committee. Analytical tests were made on the material and these were said to have proved on chemical grounds that the material taken to be constructive orginal glazing by Leonardo was in fact only a later varnish. But if this chemical analysis is held to have provided an indisputable basis for excluding the possibility that the material was original, then it is incumbent upon those who removed it to explain how the various apparently artistic effects that it had contributed, had been achieved. In a nutshell the problem is: How might an overall “varnish” as opposed to a glazed layer, contribute differently in local areas that happen to coincide with discrete parts within an artist’s design? In effect, this is the same challenge that we mounted over two decades ago to the restorers at the Sistine Chapel who held that sculpturally-enhancing shadows on Michelangelo’s frescoes were the happy consequence of soot from candle smoke that had accumulated on the ceiling over many centuries.
Above, Fig. 4: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail, after cleaning. Visually, it would seem clear that the ground around the lamb’s tail has been in effect “scoured”; that darkened passages which threw the lamb into relief and prominence have been in effect “abraded”. Is it possible that a mere thinning of an overall varnish could have been responsible for such a transition?
Above, Fig. 5: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 6: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. The changes in this face can only thought alarming and deleterious. Vincent Delieuvin’s claim that cleaning has enhanced the sculptural effects of the picture seems plain wrong. For any draughtsman or sculptor, the image at Fig. 5 would have to be considered to hold more “information” than that at Fig. 6. The shadows contribute to a far greater sense of sculptural relief and surface relationships. One might say that the cleaned state now appears to be modelled in shallower relief than that found before treatment. Before the cleaning, the plaited braid of hair running over the top of the head, partook of a general system of shading. After cleaning it has emerged generally lighter and, on the viewer’s left side, no longer tucks into the general ensemble that comprises the more shaded side of the head. Moreover, of the shading on the face, it can immediately be noted that a certain transparency has been introduced – it is now possible to see under St. Anne’s (true) right eye, an earlier positioning of the iris by Leonardo. It is a commonly encountered consequence of picture cleanings that they take works further towards the condition of transparency that is seen in infra-red photographs, where the light penetrates the surface of the paint. While that kind of “imaging” is very useful in terms of identifying earlier stages in a work’s genesis and, specifically, in identifying an artist’s own under-drawing, it cannot be a good thing for works of art themselves to be rendered transparent.
Above, Fig. 7: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 8: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. This issue and the artistic dangers of increased transparency had been raised on the international advisory committee by Jacques Franck who had urged that a sufficiency of varnish be left on the face of St. Anne to prevent the inevitable consequence of age-induced transparency in Leonardo’s paintwork from emerging. He has described the peculiarly heightened dangers that were to be expected because of Leonardo’s method on flesh passages at that late stage in his career (when the “Mona lisa” was being produced). He paraphrases his submissions to the committee on the constructive use of “velatura” in the St. Anne head in the following terms: “In Leonardo’s time, those ‘velature’ were meant to interplay optically with the undermodelling and a more roughly worked state of the image. It resulted in opalescent flesh tones linked to the shadows very gradually, thus producing the typical smoky effect called “sfumato” in these sections. The ageing of the binding agent through time has made the opalescent micro-layers become increasingly transparent: details like the eyebrows, some sharp accents in the mouth, in the nose’s end seem to have been executed in the final state of the Saint’s head but have not. They are parts of the underdrawing that are emerging in the visible light due to increased transparency now.The same with the undermodelling. To date, the soft transitions having lessened markedly, the contrasts between light and shade are much stronger, inevitably so. More microns of old brown varnish left [in place] would have compensated for the now missing opalescent subtleties of Leonardo’s “sfumato”. Hence the difference to be observed between before and after cleaning.The Louvre was advised by me not to thin too much for that very reason. Leonardo’s subtleties need a substantial ‘veil’ of old varnish left over them, a situation clearly respected by Alfio del Serra in cleaning [Leonardo’s] Annunciation in the Uffizi, for the picture’s atmospheric effect is beautifully preserved.”
Above, Fig. 9: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 10: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. One sees in this comparison of the eyes, not only the emerged iris but also a substantial degree of lost shading around the eyes. This is very commonly encountered in restored faces. The eye is best understood anatomically as a ball set in a hollow (a hollow that is formed by the brow/nose/cheekbone configuration), and its surface is only made visible through lids that close for protection and during sleep. The “eye” that is defined by the aperture of the opened lids is properly to be understood as a part of the surface of the larger eyeball. The relationships between these component parts are very distinctive to individual heads (or to the idealised “types” of heads devised by artists). Anything that reduces the original artist’s construction of those relationships (made by shading essentially) is extremely harmful to the “plastic” properties of the head as well as to its characteristic expression. A commonly encountered feature of restored faces is that the shading around the eye, which “sets” it properly in its recessed protective zone, is so diminished that the more precisely delineated parts – the shapes of the eyelid apertures and the iris/pupil – of the eye become more apparent, become over emphatically drawn. With regard to the level of cleaning that is said to occurred on the St. Anne, Franck had been assured that varnish would be left in place to a thickness of 18 to 20 microns. A micron is only one-thousandth of a millimetre or 0.001 mm. It might be wondered how a restorer working with solvent-laden cotton wool swabs (as seen in use on the DVD film, for example) might ever be able reliably and predictably to operate evenly to such ultra-fine tolerances. In the event, Franck was told that on the St. Anne the level of varnish that had been retained was of only 12 – not 18 to 20 – microns depth, or in other words of 0.012mm. This raises the question: Was this, as had been promised, the area of greatest varnish thickness that was left in place, or was this, in fact, the “uniform level” to which the painting had been cleaned throughout, as is described in the exhibition on the wall notice?
Above, Fig. 11: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), before cleaning.
Above, Fig. 12: Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, detail (St. Anne), after cleaning. It would seem inconceivable, to any sculptor’s trained-eye that this section of the face, after cleaning, might be considered to enjoy enhanced sculptural values. In purely formal terms, what is seen here is an advance and an expansion of the lights at the expense of the darks – which darks had comprised in this working method the “constructive” component of Leonardo’s “modelling” on the light ground of his picture. The lights had not been painted as values, they were merely the sections of ground left unmodified by Leonardo’s meltingly applied shadows.
Above, left, Fig. 13: “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant St John the Baptist”, (“The Burlington House Cartoon”). Above, right, Fig. 14: “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, before cleaning.
Above, left, Fig. 15: “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, copy, c. 1508-13, Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Calif., US. Above, right, Fig. 16: The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, after cleaning.
Above, left, Fig. 17: “The Virgin of the Rocks”, the National Gallery, before cleaning. Above, right, Fig 18: “The Virgin of the Rocks”, the National Gallery, after cleaning. As with the Louvre’s St. Anne, the varnish (which had been described as having come to constitute a threat to, as well as a disfigurement of, the paint) was said to have been thinned not removed. Indeed, when shown the painting part-cleaned, and when it was lit with an ultra-violet lamp, remains of (patchy) varnish were to be seen on the picture. Against that evidence, we face the problem of how the changes that manifestly occurred (as seen above) could have arisen. For example, how was the angel’s mouth changed if it remained under a film of varnish? What accounts for the fact that after the last cleaning the picture did not return to anything like its condition when previously cleaned sixty years before? Specifically, what accounts for the great lightening of the sky seen in the top right, as opposed to the sky seen on the left? What accounts for the great change in the Virgin’s blue robes?
Above, Fig. 19: The short Louvre catalogue, left; right, an illustration published in 1992 of the principal heads in the “St. Anne.” The emerging chasm between such photographic records of the same painting has yet to be addressed by scholars and curators.
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wibble!